A few weeks ago, I was invited to take my children to a college basketball game. And here’s the really cool part: we were even invited to the locker room to hear the pre-game speech. Last summer, I officiated the wedding of one of the assistant coaches.
During the pre-game speech, I couldn’t believe all the basketball jargon used. If the other team shifted to a “full-court press,” Coach wanted his team to run “Milwaukee,” and if they got around it, then they should, of course, do what?
The team shouted, “Trapeze.”
I didn’t know what he meant by either “Milwaukee” or “Trapeze.” Nor did my kids. But he knew what he meant and so did his team.
I suspect, however, if we had visited a basketball practice during the fall as the players were learning, that the coach explained all this in more detail. This would have been necessary for the freshmen, as well as a helpful refresher for the upperclassmen. On our own, no one knows what obscure jargon means, much less how to apply it. All of us need a coach to bring us along as we learn something new.
Today I’m continuing a blog series I started a few weeks ago. It’s a bit of a primer on how to study a Bible passage, as well as how to teach that passage in a way that is clear and compelling. I’m calling the series “Backstage Pass” because I’ll be taking you “backstage of the pulpit” to see what goes into the writing of a sermon.
As I mentioned the other week, I realize not everyone will become a vocational teacher of the Bible. In fact, few will. Moreover, James told the early church “not many of you should be teachers” (3:1a). Nevertheless, all Christians will spend their life studying the Bible; it’s what we do. So, we might as well spend some time talking about how to do it well.
What Is an Expository Sermon?
At our church, we have two teaching pastors, Jason Abbott and me. As teaching pastors, we have the primary responsibility to lead the preaching and teaching ministry of our church. For us, this often looks like rotating each Sunday who is preaching. When we first explain this to people, many find it a foreign concept. Indeed, having two teaching pastors is a rare church model, but I could name several other churches that do this effectively. And over the last three years, our congregants have seemed to enjoy it.
Jason and I typically preach what are called “expository sermons.” Perhaps some of you have heard this term before. For others, it’s as foreign to you as “trapeze” was to me.
Let me explain what expository means. To borrow a definition from Mark Dever, “In expository sermons, the main point of the Scripture passage is the main point of the sermon.” Simple enough, right? What the passage says (in the main), the sermon should also say. Jason and I typically preach expository sermons through one book of the Bible at a time. When we finish one book, we typically move on to another, while rotating between Old and New Testament books.
The other common type of preaching is a “topical sermon.” In a topical sermon, the particular topic in view is what drives the Bible passage (or passages) covered. An example of a topical sermon might be a sermon on godly families or the deity of Christ or how to solve conflict as a Christian.
Why We Preach Expository Sermons?
I wouldn’t say there is anything inherently wrong with a topical sermon. Again, we preach them from time to time. But I do think a regular diet of expositional preaching is the better choice. Here are two reasons why.
First, most Christians read their Bibles this way, that is, we read one book at a time, and when we finish one book, we go to another. I don’t know any Christian who reads topically, at least as a rule. Thus expository preaching—when done well—models for Christians how to effectively read the Bible. I’m convinced this, by the way, meets a great need in the church. Good preaching doesn't just feed; it teaches how to fish.
Second, we don’t want to skip parts or themes of the Bible. This is a temptation inherent to topical preaching. It’s so easy to avoid topics when you are the one choosing what topics to preach. When this happens, it’s not necessarily sinister. In fact, it almost never is. But apart from some outside influence to keep us balanced, we would all tend to favor our strengths and avoid our weaknesses. It’s human nature. And so, without a commitment to expository preaching (an “outside influence,” if you will), I fear I would avoid things with which I need to deal. Having to preach the next passage simply because it’s the next passage—whether I want to or not—tends to make me, as a preacher, and the congregation as listeners, well rounded. As Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16, God inspired all of the Bible, and it’s all profitable to us. (For a longer explanation of why I preach this way, see a post I wrote called, “Spring Loaded Camming Devices and The Expository Sermon.”)
How Long Does It Take You to Prepare?
It takes me around 16–20 hours to write most sermons. This includes the time to study, write, and practice delivering the message. A breakdown of this time looks roughly like this:
2 hours to translate the passage
2 hours to record notes and questions from my translation
4 hours to study commentaries
2 hours to listen to several sermons on the passage
2 hours to fill out my sermon “pre-qualification list” (I’ll explain this in later posts)
4 hours to write the sermon
1 hour to edit the sermon
+ 1 hour to practice delivering the sermon
= 18 hours
Here are a few other things worth mentioning about the process. Most of the time, because Jason and I work in a co-pastor model that shares the weekly preaching responsibilities, about 25% of my sermon preparation occurs two weeks before I preach, while the remaining 75% occurs the week in which I preach. We typically plan the preaching calendar (both speaker and passage) about 9 months in advance. Also, we do a sermon debrief every Monday morning at 9 am. At those meetings, we talk about what worked well the previous Sunday, what we need to improve upon, and we pray and plan for the upcoming sermon.
As you prepare your own lessons about the Bible, I don’t expect you’ll do everything we do. You don’t have to know what trapeze means to enjoy a game of pick-up basketball. Moreover, churches free up pastors to do gospel teaching full time, and this allows us to really commit to the craft. Nevertheless, hopefully this post gives you a sense of what many pastors do those other 39 hours in a week!
In the next “Backstage Pass” post, I’ll dispense with this background information and get on with sharing the tools I’ve been promising.